What does it mean to join the people of Israel? This question takes on pressing urgency now as the State of Israel takes in tens of thousands of refugees from Ukraine, some with Jewish mothers, some with only Jewish fathers, some who converted or want to convert, others non-Jews seeking safety until the fighting ends. The complexity of Israel’s national immigration law, including the relevant-as-ever Law of Return, overlaps uneasily with traditional Halacha, resulting in confusion and bureaucratic hurdles for hundreds of thousands of people. Our current countdown toward the Shavuot reading of the Book of Ruth coinciding with the Daf Yomi study of the locus classicus of conversion laws in the Talmud offers a perfect opportunity to untangle the historical strands of the laws of conversion and gain a better perspective of both the current predicament and possible solutions.
How did one join the nation of Israel during biblical times? As a sovereign kingdom in a land defined by borders, conversion in early Israel meant immigrating and naturalizing as a citizen. The first requirement would be to live in the land of Israel, just as modern countries require residence for citizenship. A foreigner who has come only for a visit or a temporary stay received the title of nokhri (foreigner) and was treated like any member of a foreign nation (Deuteronomy 14:21, 15:3, and 17:15). However, immigrants who have come to live permanently in Israel gained the status of toshav or ger, literally “a dweller or resident.” These individuals had a right to receive gifts to the poor (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22, 25:35-36), could not be forced to work on Shabbat (Exodus 20:10, 23:12), and were provided special protection against usury, abuse, and injustice (Exodus 22:20, 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 24:17) on account of their vulnerability as poor newcomers lacking alliances and family networks. They were invited to celebrate national holidays (Leviticus 16:29, Deuteronomy 16:14) and, if they agreed to circumcise, could even partake of the Passover sacrifice (Exodus 12:48), a defining ritual that indicated affiliation with the Israelite people.
The requirement of circumcision for men in order to marry into Israelite families can be derived from the offer by Jacob’s sons to the Shechemites. But other than that, the Bible legislates no formal procedure. Gerim—Jews by choice, or proselytes—would simply become indistinguishable after they lost their accents and married into local communities. The finest model for this process was Ruth, who was still considered a Moabite while living outside of Israel, even though married to a Judahide there. Her move to Judea, however, made her marriageable even to a respected landowner like Boaz, which eventually made her the foremother of King David. Ruth’s inspiring declaration to her mother-in-law encapsulates the transformative significance of her journey: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17).
Jumping forward several centuries and two Temple destructions later, the Talmudic sages find themselves scattered throughout the Roman and Persian empires struggling to maintain a sense of nationhood without a homeland. Even without a capital city or a centralized leadership, the rabbis envision a nation bound by laws rather than land, upheld by academies and courts rather than cavalry. A revised set of criteria for joining this nation could no longer require residency, as the Talmud explicitly derives: “I know only that a convert is accepted in the Land of Israel; from where do I derive that also outside of the Land of Israel? The verse states ‘with you,’ which indicates that in any place that he is with you, you should accept him.”
Instead, the sages brilliantly draw from their history to formulate a set of rituals and legal processes to becoming Jewish. Talmud Bavli Yevamot 46a offers a three-way controversy about the minimum ritual requirment:
Our Rabbis taught: If a convert was circumcised but did not immerse in a mikveh, Rabbi Eliezer says he is a valid convert for so we find that our forefathers were circumcised but did not immerse.
If he immersed but was not circumcised, Rabbi Joshua says he is a valid convert for we find that our foremothers immersed but were not circumcised.
But the sages say, whether he immersed but was not circumcised, or was circumcised but did not immerse, he is not a valid convert unless he is circumcised and immerses.
Rabbi Eliezer looks for a ritual precedent in the Torah and finds not only that circumcision is the symbol of the covenant commanded to Abraham but also that the forefathers in Egypt underwent a mass circumcision at the time of the Passover sacrifice (see Joshua 5:5) to mark their bodies as Israelite, just as they did with their doorposts. Rabbi Joshua argues that since the foremothers did not have circumcision to define them, they must have had a different conversion ritual. The continuation of the Talmud finds a lead in the instructions of Moses that the people sanctify themselves and wash their garments three days before the Lawgiving (Exodus 19:10). If they washed their garments, then they surely also immersed their bodies. The sages agree with both precedents of the forefathers and foremothers such that every new convert in future generations will need to experience for themselves all elements of the mass ceremony when the Children of Israel first became a nation. The Talmud continues to provide a script for the interview before the court:
Our Rabbis: Regarding a potential convert who comes to a court at the present time when the Jews are in exile, the judges of the court say to him: “What did you see that motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised, and harassed, and hardships are frequently visited upon them?” If he says: “I know, and I am unworthy of joining the Jewish people,” then the court accepts him immediately.
The judges of the court inform him of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot, and they inform him of the sin of neglecting the mitzvah to allow the poor to take gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and produce in the corner of one’s field, and about the poor man’s tithe. And they inform him of the punishment for transgressing the mitzvot. They tell him, “…If you now profane Shabbat, you will be punished by stoning.” And just as they inform him about the punishment for transgressing the mitzvot, so too, they inform him about the reward granted for fulfilling them….They do not overwhelm him with threats, and they are not exacting with him about the details.
If he accepts upon himself all of these ramifications, then they circumcise him immediately.… When he is healed from the circumcision, they immerse him immediately, and two Torah scholars stand over him at the time of his immersion and inform him of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot. Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a born Jew in every sense.
For the immersion of a woman: Women appointed by the court seat her in the water of the ritual bath up to her neck, and two Torah scholars stand outside the bathhouse so as not to compromise her modesty, and from there they inform her of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot.
The Talmud continues to elaborate on these details, changing the two Torah scholars into three judges such that they are not simply witnessing the ritual but issuing a legal decision to accept the new convert. The opening question establishes that joining a people also means joining in their persecution, feeling the weight of their history and their minority status among great empires. The goal of the educational section that follows is not to drill in a full curriculum of Jewish law that would take years to accomplish. Rather, just as at the Sinai Lawgiving the people accept 10 foundational laws and hear the rest later, so, too, the convert learns a representative sampling (with special emphasis on charity) and an expectation to continue studying afterward. Instead of geographical boundaries, it is now primarily the bounds of the commandments, with all of their legal consequences and rewards, that comes to define Jewish identity. The Gemara poetically reenacts this shift through a rereading of the conversation between Naomi and her daughter-in-law:
Naomi said to her: “On Shabbat, it is prohibited for us to go beyond the Shabbat limit.” Ruth responded: “Wherever you go, I will go (Ruth 1:16), and no further.” Naomi said to her: “It is forbidden for us to be alone together with a man with whom it is forbidden to engage in relations.” Ruth responded: “Where you lodge, I will lodge (Ruth 1:16), and in the same manner.”
Naomi said to her: “We are commanded to observe six hundred and thirteen commandments.” Ruth responded: “Your people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:16). Naomi said to her: “Idolatrous worship is forbidden to us.” Ruth responded: “Your God is my God” (Ruth 1:16). Naomi said to her: “Four types of capital punishment were handed over to a court with which to punish those who transgress the mitzvot.” Ruth responded: “Where you die, I shall die” (Ruth 1:17). Naomi said to her: “Two burial grounds were handed over to the court, one for those executed for more severe crimes and another for those executed for less severe crimes.” Ruth responded: “And there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:17).
Each phrase in Ruth’s nationalistic pledge of allegiance is now read as a cipher for particular commandments and for the consequences of violating them. Adjudicated by a loose network of rabbinic courts around the world, the Talmudic system of defining who is a Jew succeeded for 2,000 years of exile.
The rise of the State of Israel, however, now rekindles fundamental questions about what it means to join the nation. The Jewish people finds itself at a crossroads that the ancient rabbis could only have hoped for but could barely have imagined. Israel as a democracy legislates civil immigration laws based on economic, political, and humanitarian considerations, as does every other sovereign nation. Add to that the Law of Return guaranteeing that anyone with even partial Jewish lineage persecuted under the Nuremberg Laws can find safety in the Jewish homeland. These national laws overlap the Talmudic definitions that continue to define Jewish conversion in the Diaspora as well as the status of returnees to Israel who must answer to Halacha for full marriage and burial rights as Jews.
Can Halacha find precedent for taking into account residence in the sovereign State of Israel as a key element for conversion as it was in biblical times? Many halachic decisors, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, agree that specifically for conversion in Israel, we should follow the lenient views based on Maimonides, Rabbi Meir Hai Uziel, and others to accept converts even without complete halachic observance at the outset. In Israel, these immigrant converts will become integrated with Israeli society, will fight in the Israel Defense Forces, will contribute to the rebuilding of the country, and will be far from foreign influence or threat of future intermarriage.
Ironically, those coming to convert in Israel today are held up to the strictest standards while those in the Diaspora can choose from the widest range of conversion programs from the most to the least demanding. Common sense, however, would recommend for stricter standards outside of Israel, where keeping up Jewish identity, practice, and intramarriage is more challenging. On the other hand, ensuring that all Israeli citizens who identify as Jewish can halachically marry other Jews is of utmost importance for the integrity of the Jewish State. Precedent for reintroducing elements of the biblical model by fast-tracking converts in the Land of Israel is already found in Tractate Gerim 4:5:
The Land of Israel is beloved for it readies converts. One who comes as a convert in the Land of Israel, we accept them immediately. One who comes as a convert outside the Land, we do not accept them unless they bring their testimony with them.
As the Jewish people counts up toward the reacceptance of the Sinai Lawgiving on Shavuot and the reading of the Book of Ruth, we can take this opportunity to revisit and strengthen our own Israelite identities, whether based on lineage, law, or longing. Whether that means learning Hebrew, observing Shabbat and celebrating holidays, creating a Jewish music playlist, considering aliyah, joining Daf Yomi, or getting involved in a synagogue or a Jewish humanitarian organization, there are plenty of paths toward greater Jewish commitment and a deepened feeling that “your people shall be my people.”
Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary is a professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University, a rabbi at Sephardic Synagogue, and a faculty member for the Wexner Heritage Program. He was recently a Starr fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Jewish Studies and a Clal - LEAP fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud (Brown University Press, 2010) and Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric: Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is currently writing a new translation and commentary on tractate Sanhedrin and recording daf yomi classes (available on YouTube). He also runs the websites teachtorah.org, pizmonim.org, and rabbinics.org.